The Origins of 25 Monsters, Ghosts, and Spooky Things

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Though dressing up as an angel is acceptable, it’s ghouls and goblins that truly capture our imaginations during the Halloween season. As lit jack-o’-lanterns beckon and monsters lurk in the shadows, we explore the origins of 25 frightful things that go bump—or boo—in the night.

1. JACK-O’-LANTERNS

Two carved pumpkins set against a background of glowing woods
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The name “jack-o’-lantern” comes from an Irish myth, in which a man called Stingy Jack tricks the Devil and ends up condemned to walk the earth, unable to get into heaven or hell. According to the tale, the original lantern was a carved-out turnip Jack used to light his way as he wandered in the dark. When Irish immigrants brought this story to America, they discovered that pumpkins, native to their new home, made an even spookier candle-holder.

2. ZOMBIES

Three zombies reaching for the viewer against a stormy sky
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The flesh-eating creatures of movies galore are Haitian in origin—animated corpses raised by Voodoo priests, called bokors. Once reanimated, the zombies would remain under the control of the bokor and do their bidding. The creatures first entered widespread popular culture in the 1929 book The Magic Island by William Seabrook and three years later in the film White Zombie, though our modern zombies have come to be associated more with plagues and viruses than sorcery.

3. CRYSTAL BALLS

A female fortune-teller with gold headdress and her arms raised near a glowing crystal ball
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A fortune-teller’s staple, crystal balls may have been described by Pliny the Elder in the 1st century. In one chapter of his Natural History, he discusses magic performed with water, balls, and all sorts of other tools. Some scholars have associated these practices with the Druids, which Pliny also discusses. It's said that Druids would employ a procedure known as “scrying,” in which they stared into the reflective surfaces of mirrors, water, and, yes, crystals, to gain insight.

4. MUMMIES

A man dressed up as a mummy and reaching upwards
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In ancient Egypt, mummification was a type of body preservation thought to be developed by people looking to mimic the way the desert kept bodies from decaying. As the popularity of all things Egyptian skyrocketed in Europe during the 19th century, the mummy and its supposed curse became a standard horror trope, appearing in stories by authors such as Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and even Louisa May Alcott.

5. FRIDAY THE 13TH

The number thirteen on a street placard
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So many of us fear the number 13 that there’s a word for it: triskaidekaphobia. The superstitions surrounding Friday the 13th, however, are less concrete. One theory traces it to the Last Supper, attended by 12 apostles and Jesus, and the fact that the crucifixion traditionally took place on a Friday. The combined fear of Fridays and the number 13, however, didn’t really take hold until the early 20th century, when Thomas Lawson published a book called (surprise) Friday, the Thirteenth.

6. TROLLS

A grinning troll-like woman painted in dark green
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Trolls come from Norse mythology, and are prevalent in folklore throughout Scandinavia. They generally live in caves or around other rocky formations, and can be either giant or quite small. Paleoanthropologists like Björn Kurtén have argued that the troll mythos comes from passed-down tales of when our Cro-Magnon ancestors met Neanderthals thousands of years ago.

7. HEADLESS HORSEMAN

Th legend of Sleepy Hollow headless horseman stamp
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In Irish legends, the dullahan is a frightening being indeed: sitting upon a horse, the man rides with his head held high in his hand so that he may scan his surroundings. If that wasn’t creepy enough, don’t worry. The dullahan also carries a whip made out of a human spine. Be careful if he stops and says your name—you’ll die instantly.

8. BIGFOOT

Woodsy trails marked with a
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Bigfoot is a large, furry, ape-like creature that predominantly lives in the mountains and forests of the Pacific Northwest—though he has also been spotted throughout the rest of North America. While many Bigfoot sightings are said to be hoaxes, it’s believed that Bigfoot shares an origin story with other similar creatures, like the Abominable Snowman: Humans, it turns out, have a tendency to make up giant, wild, ape-like creatures that live at the edges of civilization. Similar creatures are found in the First Nations myths of British Columbia, where some say the Sasquatch was a figure meant to keep children from misbehaving.

9. VAMPIRES

A dramatic male vampire in a velvet cape baring his teeth
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Vampires entered modern society through the publication of John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Though vampire-like creatures are present in the mythologies of many cultures, it was literature that began to shape their traits into the iconic ones we know today. The vampires of Eastern Europe, for example, were not pale and thin, but ruddy and bloated.

10. TRICK-OR-TREATING

Two adorable blond little girls dressed up like witches for Halloween and grinning, one with a pumpkin
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Mumming, or going around the neighborhood in costume and saying specific lines in exchange for food, has been a staple of certain holidays since the Middle Ages. This custom first applied to Halloween in 16th century Scotland, when it was called “guising.” The term “trick-or-treat” wasn’t used until the 1930s, and is decidedly American.

11. THE KRAKEN

A many-armed kraken attacks an older ship
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According to Nordic folklore, the Kraken was a giant sea monster that could devour a ship and its entire crew in one swallow. The legend likely has its origins in sailors’ encounters with giant squid—reaching up to 60 feet in length, they might not be monsters, but they’re pretty close.

12. FLYING BROOMSTICKS

A young woman riding a broom
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OK, this one is weird. Broomsticks became associated with flying because of witches’ “flying ointment,” a potion made up of various hallucinogens, like the fungus ergot that grew on rye. Since ingesting the ointment orally led to a host of unpleasant side effects, witches chasing a high supposedly began to administer it through, well, other areas. Apparently, it felt like flying.

13. THE LOCH NESS MONSTER

A scaly Loch Ness monster with a Scottish castle in the background
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Arguably the world’s most famous sea monster, Nessie is said to inhabit Loch Ness in Scotland. Though the earliest sighting was reported in the 6th century, and told of an Irish monk's encounter with a “water beast,” it was a 1934 photograph that brought international attention to Loch Ness. Known as the “surgeon’s photograph” after the London doctor who took it, the image has since been exposed as a hoax.

14. DRAGONS

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Because cultures across the world have myths featuring dragons, it’s likely the beasts have their origins in a much more mundane creature. One theory holds that dinosaur fossils, like those of the stegosaurus, were thought to be the remains of dragons. Anthropologist David E. Jones has another theory. In his book An Instinct for Dragons, Jones argues that a fear of large predators is inherent to the human mind.

15. MERMAIDS AND MERMEN

A mermaid looking contemplative on the shore
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Half-human and half-fish, mermaids exist in multiple mythologies as both beautiful maidens and frightening monsters. One of the earliest examples of such a hybrid are the apkallu of Babylonian mythology, sages associated with the god Ea that were depicted as half-man, half-fish.

16. CHUPACABRA

An orange-furred, toothy, chupacabra-like creature
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The well-named chupacabra, which literally means “goat-sucker,” goes back to the '90s in Puerto Rico, when eight sheep were found dead and entirely drained of blood. Since then, it has been a popular, ahem, scapegoat whenever livestock are suspiciously harmed. Theories hold that mange-infected dogs and coyotes, not chupacabras, committed the actual crimes.

17. MAGIC WANDS

An enchanting-looking magic wand with a green glow around it as if casting magic
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Ancient Egyptian practitioners of magic used metal or ivory wands decorated with images of deities. In Homer’s The Odyssey, written in the 8th century BCE, the sorceress Circe turns men into pigs through the use of a magic wand.

18. BLOODY MARY

A scary-looking woman covered in blood with a glowing candle in front of her
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Chanting “Bloody Mary” in front of the mirror of a dark bathroom is a sleepover tradition with debatable origins. The titular Mary could be English Queen Mary I, who accused many Protestants of heresy and sealed their fate, earning her the nickname “Bloody Mary.” Given the common name, however, it’s possible Mary doesn’t refer to anyone at all—she’s scary either way!

19. WEREWOLF

A scary-looking Bloody Mary type figure
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The werewolf, whether a human who shifts into a wolf or a human/wolf hybrid, was first mentioned in The Epic of Gilgamesh, which tells of a woman who turned a previous lover into a wolf. Another popular origin story is the Greek myth of Lycaon, whom Zeus turned into a wolf in a fit of rage. A synonym for werewolf is, of course, lycanthrope.

20. BANSHEE

A screaming witchy-looking woman in the fog
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Female spirits from Irish mythology, banshees foretell death by screaming or wailing. They can appear as young maidens or old hags, and usually have unkempt hair and green or red clothing. Their name, ben side in Old Irish, literally means "female fairy" or "female elf."

21. KODAMA

Kodama are Japanese tree spirits. According to legend, they live in trees that are over 100 years old; in some stories, they reside in specific trees, but in others, they can move throughout the forest. Introduced to the West through the Studio Ghibli film Princess Mononoke, their legend goes further back—the Kojiki, or “Records of Ancient Matters,” the oldest surviving Japanese book, mentions something similar.

22. POLTERGEIST

A housewife being scared by a ghost in an old black-and-white photo
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Poltergeist, which means “noisy ghost” in German, is usually a spirit that haunts a person rather than a location. They usually express their anger through the disruption of the household: slamming doors, moving chairs and other objects, and even pinching people. The first investigated cases of poltergeists happened in Scotland and England in the late 1600s, and involved enchanted drums, beggars seeking revenge, and devil worship. The famous movie, however, didn't come out until 1982.

23. DYBBUK

A couple are terrified by a spectral apparition
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A dybbuk is a malevolent spirit from Jewish mythology that possesses its human host—the name comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to cling.” Said to be the soul of a dead person, the dybbuk first appeared in 16th century literature before frightening us in films like 2009’s The Unborn and 2012’s The Possession.

24. “BOO”

An illustration of a ghost saying boo
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The oldest record in the OED for the modern spelling of boo is found in the writing of two 18th-century Scots—Gilbert Crokatt and John Monroe, who said it was “used in the north of Scotland to frighten crying children.” It has since spread far and wide.

25. RAZORS IN CANDY BARS

Razors embedded in two candy apples
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Poisoned candy, chocolate bars with needles inside, and even treats containing razor blades have been used to scare children around Halloween since the mid-1900s—the myth gained traction through news segments, advice columns like Dear Abby, and word of mouth. The good news is that fear of candy-tampering is almost entirely unfounded: Sociologist Joel Best investigated and discovered only instances of adults messing with candy to try and get money, or children doing the same for attention.

A ‘Book Ripper’ in Herne Bay, England Is Ripping Book Pages, Then Putting Them Back on Shelves

demaerre/iStock via Getty Images
demaerre/iStock via Getty Images

Herne Bay, a town about 60 miles east of London, has fallen prey to a new kind of ripper. According to The Guardian, a criminal known as the “Book Ripper” has torn pages within about 100 books in a charity bookstore before placing them back on shelves.

“I’m trying not to be too Sherlock Holmes about it,” Ryan Campbell, chief executive of the charity Demelza, told The Guardian, “but if there’s such a thing as a quite distinctive rip, well, he or she rips the page in half horizontally and sometimes removes half the page.”

Though it’s not the most efficient way to ruin a reading experience, since the pages themselves are still legible as long as they’re left in the book, it’s still devastating to a shop that relies on the generosity of others to serve the underprivileged.

“Of course people donate these books towards the care of children with terminal illness so it’s almost like taking the collection box,” Campbell said.

Since the occasional torn page in a secondhand bookshop isn’t uncommon, booksellers didn’t immediately realize the scope of the issue, but they believe it's been happening for a few months. The Book Ripper targets bookshelves that can’t be seen from the register, and has a favorite genre to vandalize: true crime.

The local library has also reported the same pattern of damage in some of their volumes, and police are now monitoring the situation in both places.

Townspeople are monitoring the situation, too, patrolling bookstores and libraries hoping to apprehend the culprit.

“I’m a little worried about the person,” Campbell said. “It makes you think a little bit about who’s doing this and why they feel the need to do it and what’s going on in their lives.”

[h/t The Guardian]

6 Strange Maritime Mysteries

Neville Mountford-Hoare/iStock via Getty Images
Neville Mountford-Hoare/iStock via Getty Images

The oceans cover over 70 percent of our planet, so it's little wonder that their seemingly impenetrable depths have provided a series of fascinating mysteries, from missing ships to eerie monsters. Below are six mysteries of the deep—some of which scientists think they've at least partly explained, while others remain truly puzzling.

  1. The Mary Celeste

On December 5, 1872, the crew of the British ship the Dei Gratia spotted a vessel bobbing about 400 miles off the coast of the Azores. They approached the Mary Celeste to offer help, but after boarding the ship were shocked to find it completely unmanned. The crew had disappeared without a trace, their belongings still stowed in their quarters, six months' worth of food and drink untouched, and the valuable cargo of industrial alcohol still mostly in place. The only clues were three and a half feet of water in the hold, a missing lifeboat, and a dismantled pump. It was the beginning of an enduring mystery concerning what happened to the crew, and why they abandoned a seemingly sea-worthy vessel.

Numerous theories have been suggested, including by crime writer Arthur Conan Doyle, who penned a short story in 1884 suggesting the crew had fallen victim to an ex-slave intent on revenge. A more recent theory has pointed the finger at rough seas and the broken pump, arguing they forced the captain to issue an order to abandon ship. Since the missing crew have never been traced, it seems unlikely that there will ever be a satisfying answer to the enigma.

  1. The Yonaguni Monument

An underwater area known as the Twin Megaliths at the Yonaguni Monument
An area known as the Twin Megaliths at the Yonaguni Monument
Vincent Lou, Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0

In 1986, a diver looking for a good spot to watch hammerhead sharks off the coast of the Ryukyu Islands in Japan came across an extraordinary underwater landscape. The area reportedly looked like an ancient submerged village, with steps, holes, and triangles seemingly carved into the rocks. Ever since it was first discovered, controversy has surrounded the site that's become known as the Yonaguni Monument, with some researchers—such as marine geologist Masaaki Kimura—arguing it is a clearly manmade environment, perhaps a city thousands of years old and sunk in one of the earthquakes that plagues the region. Others believe it's a natural geological phenomenon reflecting the stratigraphy (layers) of sandstone in an area with tectonic activity. The area is open to scuba divers, so the really curious can strap on air tanks and decide for themselves.

  1. The Bermuda Triangle

The Bermuda Triangle has probably spawned more wild theories, column inches, and online discussion than any other ocean mystery—more than 50 ships and 20 aircraft are said to have vanished there. Although the triangle has never officially been defined, by some accounts it covers at least 500,000 square miles and lies between Bermuda, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

The mystery first caught the public imagination in December 1945 when Flight 19, consisting of five U.S. Navy TBM Avenger torpedo bombers and their 14 crewmembers, were lost without a trace during a routine training operation in the area. Interest was further piqued when it was later reported that one of the search-and-rescue planes dispatched to find the missing team had also disappeared. Articles and books such as Charles Berlitz’s The Bermuda Triangle, first published in 1974 and having since sold over 20 million copies in 30 languages, have served to keep the mystery alive, providing potential theories both natural and supernatural. Scientists—and world-renowned insurers Lloyd’s of London—have attempted to debunk the myth of the Bermuda Triangle, offering evidence that the rate of disappearance in the vast and busy triangle is no higher than other comparable shipping lanes, but such is the power of a good story that this is one story that seems likely to continue to fascinate.

  1. The Kraken

A model of a giant squid on display at the Natural History Museum in London in 1907
A model of a giant squid on display at the Natural History Museum in London in 1907
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

For hundreds of years, sailors told tales of an enormous sea creature with huge tentacles known as the Kraken. Stories around the mythical kraken first started appearing in Scandinavia in the 12th century, and in 1555 Swedish cartographer Olaus Magnus provided an account of a sea creature with “sharp and long Horns round about, like a Tree root up by the Roots: They are ten or twelve cubits long, very black, and with huge eyes.” The stories persisted, often mentioning a creature so large it resembled an island. In his 1755 book The Natural History of Norway, Danish historian Erik Ludvigsen Pontoppidan described the kraken as “incontestably the largest Sea monster in the world."

Scientists have proposed that these stories might derive from sightings of giant squid (Architeuthis dux), although evidence for an even larger, yet extremely elusive, colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) has also come to light. The colossal squid is found in the deepest part of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, and is thought to be up to 46 feet long and 1100 pounds. The problem is that the animal is so rare very few specimens have been found intact, and no live specimen has ever been observed, which means that estimating its exact size is difficult. Researchers have also noticed that sperm whales have been observed with large scars, and have suggested that these could be the result of violent encounters with the colossal squid, which is known to have sharp rotating hooks on the ends of their tentacles.

  1. The Treasure of the Merchant Royal

The remains of the Merchant Royal are known as one of the richest shipwrecks ever. The ship set sail from the New World in 1641 laden with 100,000 pounds of gold, 400 Mexican silver bars, and thousands of precious gems—in total, a haul thought to be worth $1.3 billion today. The ship got caught in a storm and was thought to have gone down somewhere off the coast of Cornwall, England. The lost wreck became known as the “el Dorado of the seas” due to the enormous value of its cargo, and over the years numerous treasure hunters have searched fruitlessly for its final resting place, which remains undiscovered. In 2019 fishermen snagged what is thought to be the anchor from the Merchant Royal, but to date the dangerous conditions and extreme depths at which the wreck is thought to lie have meant it has remained unclaimed.

  1. Attack of the Sea Foam

In December 2011, residents of Cleveleys, England, awoke to what appeared to be a soft blanket of snow. But as locals ventured out into the streets it soon became clear that this was no snowstorm, but instead something far more puzzling. Trees, cars, roads, and houses were all wrapped in a thick, white layer of foam. The Environment Agency were quickly deployed to take samples of the sea foam, since residents were understandably concerned as to the origin of the strange, gloopy substance, fearing it might be caused by pollutants.

The dramatic images of the foam-soaked town soon had journalists flocking to the region to investigate the phenomena, but as quickly as it appeared the foam disappeared, leaving behind only a salty residue. Scientists analyzing the foam confirmed it was not caused by detergents, and instead suspected that it was caused by a rare combination of decomposing algae out at sea and strong winds, which whipped up the viscous foam and blew it into land. The phenomena has apparently occurred at other times before and since, and researchers are now working to try and understand the exceptional conditions that cause it to form so that residents can be warned when another thick blanket is set to descend.

Bonus: The Bloop—Mystery Solved

Over the years, the oceans have produced a number of eerie and often unexplained sounds. In 1997, researchers from NOAA listening for underwater volcanic activity using hydrophones (underwater microphones) noticed an extremely loud, powerful series of noises in the Pacific Ocean. The unusual din excited researchers, who soon named it “The Bloop” in reference to its unique sound.

Theories abounded as to the origin of the bloop—secret military facility, reverberations from a ship’s engine, or an enormous sea creature. The most fanciful suggestion stem from H. P. Lovecraft fans who noticed that the noise came from an area off South America where the sci-fi writer’s fictional sunken city of R’lyeh was supposed to be. They proposed that the bloop might have originated from Lovecraft’s “dead but dreaming” sea creature, Cthulhu. In 2005, however, scientists found that the mysterious sound was in fact the noise made by an icequake—or an iceberg shearing off from a glacier.

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